What is a Function?

Let’s investigate what, underneath the covers, an R function really is, and how the components are used when R evaluates a function. In doing so, we’ll take a number of detours, as understanding how R function calls really work requires an understanding of some subtle details. By the end of this, we’ll be able to simulate what R does internally when it evaluates a function.

The Three Musketeers

As you might already know from adv-r, (or, if you’re brave, the Technical Details section of ?"function"), functions are R objects made up of three components:

  1. A function body,

  2. An environment, and

  3. A set of formals.

Let’s look at these components individually, then see how they’re used together when evaluating a function.

The Function Body

The body of a function can be accessed with the body() function. Let’s take a peek at the body of a simple function:

fn <- function(x) { print(x) }

This is just the unevaluated call verbatim as we wrote above. It’s made up R language objects, called symbols and calls. It produces a result when evaluated within an environment.

# use 'pryr::ast' to print the abstract
# syntax tree; ie, the whole structure
# of the call object as R sees it.
do.call(pryr::ast, list(body(fn)))
\- ()
  \- `{
  \- ()
    \- `print
    \- `x 

In other words, pedantically, it’s a call to the { primitive function, which internally is calling the print function with the x symbol as an argument.

Note that these symbols do not have any meaning until they are evaluated, and their meanings depend on which environment they are evaluated in.

Pedantically, the above function involves a call to the { symbol, which will eventually be resolved as base::"{" on evaluation, although one could potentially override this with their own definition of {. Of course, overriding this function is definitely not recommended!

"{" <- function(...) print("Hello!")
{1 + 2}
[1] "Hello!"

You might be surprised to see that almost all of the syntactic elements in R actually become function calls after parsing!

But I digress. We understand now that the function body is just an unevaluated call. Let’s move on to the function environment.

The Function Environment

The environment associated with a function is typically the environment where the function was created. This is where symbols within the body() of a function that aren’t in the function formals will be resolved.

# create a function -- its associated env
# is the global environment.
# it references a (global) symbol 'a'.
foo <- function() a
<environment: R_GlobalEnv>
# calling foo() right now fails, as there's
# no 'a' in the global environment.
Error in foo(): object 'a' not found
# assign 'a' in the global env, then
# evaluate the function. all is well!
a <- 1
[1] 1
# set the function environment to an empty
# env -- 'a' will no longer be resolved as
# it does not exist in that environment.
env <- new.env(parent = emptyenv())
environment(foo) <- env
Error in foo(): object 'a' not found
# put 'a' in that environment, and now
# evaluation will succeed again.
env$a <- 1
[1] 1

Typically, this environment is called the enclosing environment – this is where ‘global’, or ‘non-local’, symbols will be resolved. What does it enclose? And how exactly do function formals get resolved?

Every time a function is evaluated, a new environment is generated, and any passed formal arguments are bound within that environment. We’ll call this the local evaluation environment, and its parent environment is the aforementioned enclosing environment. The evaluation environment can be accessed by calling environment() within the function body. Let’s demonstrate this:

fn <- function(a, b, c) {
  # the formals are made available as part
  # of the evaluation env. we'll look at
  # this more deeply later.
  formals <- ls(environment())
  # the parent env -- typically
  # where the function was generated.
  parent_env <- parent.env(environment())
  # return all the bits for inspection.
  list(eval = environment(),
       parent = parent_env,
       formals = formals)

# invoke the function twice, just to
# demonstrate that each invocation gets
# its own local eval env.
c(first = fn(), second = fn())
<environment: 0x7fcfc5e0f188>

<environment: R_GlobalEnv>

[1] "a" "b" "c"

<environment: 0x7fcfc5e0cd78>

<environment: R_GlobalEnv>

[1] "a" "b" "c"

Although it is typically bad form to have functions depend on global variables, it can be useful when functions are defined or returned within functions. Let’s illustrate with an example.

The following function make_fn() returns a function, whose enclosing environment is the local environment created when invoking make_fn() itself. Note that this means that each function returned by make_fn() gets its own copy of symbols generated when evaluating the function body:

make_fn <- function() {
  # assign 'x' within the local, newly
  # generated <make_fn> environment.
  x <- 1
  # create and return a function, whose parent
  # env is the <make_fn> environment. that means
  # it has a reference to the 'x' symbol defined
  # before.
  return(function() {
    # use 'parent assign' to update 'x'.
    x <<- x + 1

# create a couple functions using 'make_fn()'.
# what do you expect the output of each call to be?
fn1 <- make_fn()
fn2 <- make_fn()
c(fn1(), fn1(), fn1())
[1] 2 3 4
[1] 2

We now have a few key pieces of understanding in how R function evaluation works. When evaluating a function,

  1. A new, local, environment is generated, with its parent environment being the enclosing environment of the called function,

  2. The formals are bound within that local environment,

  3. The function body is evaluated in that local environment.

We have the main pieces, but 2. is a bit fuzzy. How exactly are the formals bound within that environment? How do default arguments work?

The Function Formals

The formals of a function can be accessed with formals(). It is an R object that maps argument names to default values (if they exist).

# print the function to get a synopsis of its
# formals + body + enclosure.
function (n, mean = 0, sd = 1) 
.Call(C_rnorm, n, mean, sd)
<bytecode: 0x7fcfc5d21070>
<environment: namespace:stats>
# get the formals explicitly.
Dotted pair list of 3
 $ n   : symbol 
 $ mean: num 0
 $ sd  : num 1

We can see that stats::rnorm() takes three arguments: n, mean and sd; and the argument mean gets a default of 0, while sd gets a default of 1.

Note that, since n does not receive a default argument, it is assigned the so-called ‘missing’ symbol. Attempting to evaluate this symbol directly throws an error:

fm <- formals(stats::rnorm)

# accessing a missing symbol within
# a pairlist is, strangely, okay.
# internally, it's a symbol with no name
# (the so called 'R_MissingArg' symbol).
@7fcfc5002108 01 SYMSXP g1c0 [MARK,NAM(2)] "" (has value)
# attempting to evaluate it directly
# will return an error.
n <- fm$n
Error in eval(expr, envir, enclos): argument "n" is missing, with no default

In case you’re curious, you can create the so-called missing symbol with the call quote(expr = ). (Looks, weird, I know.) Just to confirm:

x <- quote(expr = )
Error in eval(expr, envir, enclos): argument "x" is missing, with no default

Knowing what we already do about how function evaluation works, we just need to figure out how the formals are ‘inserted’ into the local function environment.

foo <- function(a = 1, b) {
  # demonstrate that 'a' and 'b' exist
  # in the function's local environment
  # access and return those symbols
  e <- environment()
  c(e$a, e$b)

# set 'b': works as expected
foo(1, 2)
[1] "a" "b"
[1] 1 2
# leave 'b' unset
# quiz: why does this succeed?
[1] "a" "b"
[1] 1


So, when foo() above is evaluated, the formals a and b have already been bound within the generated local environment. But there’s still the over-arching question: when, and how, are they bound exactly? If we assign an argument name the result of an expression, e.g. foo(x = 1 + 2), when will 1 + 2 be evaluated?

Let’s illustrate with an example. Try to guess what the output of the following function call will be.

fn <- function(x) {
  cat("+ fn\n")
  x # (1)
  x # (2)
  cat("- fn\n")

fn(x = cat("> x\n"))
+ fn
> x
- fn

You might be surprised that > x is not printed until x is actually evaluated in the function body, and that it is only printed once. Why is that?

This demonstrates Rs lazy evaluation of function arguments. When R binds formals to the local generated function environments, it does so with a promise. Roughly speaking, a promise is a transient object that does not produce the result of its evaluation until explicitly requested. It is only evaluated once; after it has been evaluated, the returned value is stored and returned on any later subsequent evaluations of that object.

This means that, in the first call to x above, the expression cat("> x\n") is evaluated, and its result is returned and assigned to x (in this case, calling the cat() function just returns NULL). The second time, we’ve already ‘forced’ the promise, and so we don’t evaluate x again.

We now understand all the main pieces in how R evaluates a function! I am glossing over the details related to argument matching. Given what you know now, try to convince yourself that this stage simply maps function argument names to promises to be executed later – either with the default argument, or an argument provided by you, the user.

Pop quiz: can you predict the result of this function call?

tricky <- function(x = y <- TRUE) {
[1] TRUE

Because x is a promise, with expression y <- TRUE, when that promise is evaluated we bind the symbol y with value TRUE in the executing environment. Therefore, attempting to access y after forcing the promise bound to x will succeed.

That said, please don’t actually write code like this.

Putting it Together

Given the above, let’s try simulating what happens during function evaluation ourselves. We’ll make use of one tool, delayedAssign(), which will allow us to generate a promise.

## attempt to evaluate the aformentioned
## 'fn', with 'x = cat("> x\n")'.

# collect our three musketeers from the
# aforementioned 'fn' function.
formals <- formals(fn)
body <- body(fn)
fn_env <- environment(fn)

# generate an env to host evaluation.
eval_env <- new.env(parent = fn_env)

# bind 'x = cat("> x\n")' in that env,
# as a promise.
delayedAssign("x", cat("> x\n"),
              eval_env, eval_env)

# evaluate the fn body in that env.
eval(body, envir = eval_env)
+ fn
> x
- fn

And voila – we’ve successfully simulated function evaluation in R. Now let’s put this all together in a function. We’ll call it evalf(), for ‘evaluate function’.

# evaluate a function, binding named arguments
# in '...' to the local evaluation env
evalf <- function(fn, ...) {
  # collect the main pieces we need for eval
  body <- body(fn)
  fn_env <- environment(fn)
  formals <- formals(fn)
  eval_env <- new.env(parent = fn_env)
  # capture unevaluated expressions passed
  # within the dots
  dots <- eval(substitute(alist(...)))
  # assign default arguments
  # note that, because 'delayedAssign' tries
  # to capture the passed expression as-is,
  # we use 'do.call' for force e.g. 'formals[[i]]'
  # to evaluate to the actual expression within
  for (i in seq_along(formals)) {
    do.call(base::delayedAssign, list(
      names(formals)[[i]], formals[[i]],
      eval_env, eval_env
  # override with user-supplied args
  for (i in seq_along(args)) {
    do.call(base::delayedAssign, list(
      names(dots)[[i]], dots[[i]],
      eval_env, eval_env
  # evaluate it!
  eval(body, envir = eval_env)

# run our original example function
evalf(fn, x = cat("> x\n"))
+ fn
> x
- fn
# try calling 'rnorm' with 'n = 2'
evalf(rnorm, n = 2)
[1] -0.09113057 -0.34948505


Note that this scheme really is quite simplified – it does not capture what happens with S3 or S4 dispatch, and it also does not reflect what happens when so-called primitive functions are called:

evalf(c, 1, 2, 3)           # nope!
Error in new.env(parent = fn_env): use of NULL environment is defunct
evalf(head, x = 1:10)       # sorry!
Error in eval(expr, envir, enclos): generic 'function' is not a function

It does otherwise accurately portray how evaluation of ‘vanilla’ R functions works. Behind the scenes, R will handle dispatch and such using C code, and perform non-standard evaluation to handle things like the use of UseMethod() within a function body.

Hopefully this exercise has helped you piece together what happens behind the scenes in R function evaluation, and given you some understanding of how R’s lazy evaluation of function arguments works.

EDIT 1: Improved implementation of evalf(); the original version did not capture promises appropriately.